Lessons from Legends: George Kennedy

By George Kennedy

I retired from Johns Hopkins on June 30, 2017, and while I would love to say "and haven't looked back". That just is not true. It would be difficult just to leave after 31 years, go "cold turkey", and not look back (or continue to stay in the sport).  In fact, it would be nearly impossible.  So, it has been a thrill to work as a volunteer coach at Johns Hopkins and speak about some of the life skills learned in my decades as head coach.

My initial reflection is that I am thankful to have had the relationships with so many swimmers and coaches.  None of us "really knew what we didn't know" early in our career; nor are we ever as good as they say we are at the end of our careers.   Like everyone in our sport, we have our strengths and our N.I.’s (needs improvements-just like on the grade school report cards).  To keep it all to point, here is what I would focus on if I had a "re-do":

1)  Understand what makes me tick; what makes our assistant coaches tick, and delegate meaningful work that they enjoy and has purpose.  Greater self-awareness would have helped me understand what makes me tick, becoming vulnerable earlier in my career would have led to my assistants ability to understand the sense of purpose to what we were doing.  The same applies to my athletes, I would make a bigger effort to value and care and "get to know" each athlete.  Early in my career the focus was all on getting to know them, but I did not let them "in" to know me.  Learning that a true connection is an energy surge that must travel both ways, it is imperative to influencing others...what we do as head coaches.  

Re-do #1:  Be open, be vulnerable, find a way for them to "get" you!  Then focus on knowing your athletes.

2) Again it starts at the top.  A video of Dr. Charles Dwyer (Penn Wharton School) titled "How to get anyone to do what you want", states that in order to influence others we should focus on behaviors and performance.   His major point is that "We must be 100% responsible for our effectiveness".  Each team member!   There is no "blame game" or "their fault".   If each individual focused on this core value of being an effective member of the team,  our culture would be impacted, and an "All-In Culture"  would ensue.  As I reflect, our "winning culture" took root when our "Silver Bullet" became each athlete taking 100% responsible for their own effectiveness,

Re-do #2:  Focus from Day 1 on creating a winning culture (not just win) with each individual being 100% responsible for their own effectiveness.

3) The first 30 seconds generally determines how any conversation, confrontation or correction goes.   We are in the business of giving feedback.  Those who become elite, value introspection and feedback as part of their path to success.  In getting to know your athletes (#1), be sure to value the first 30 seconds.   Wow do I wish that I could have started some dialogs, conversations, or even confrontations differently!   Knowing when to step back, "take a deep breath" , or to charge onward, surely would have helped me earlier in my career, simply ssing those first 30 seconds to set the tone in the right way.

An example, Take a look at 5th grade English teacher Barry White Jr. from Ashley Park Elementary School in Charlotte showing his individualized handshake for each of his students.  The handshake is the first form of communication with their teacher, the first 30 seconds.  The students feel unique and valued.  Perhaps the biggest take is that they are engaged for the rest of their day.  

Re-do #3:  Wake up each day valuing the first 30 seconds.  For athletes and coaches, our first interaction happens at around 6 am.  We can make an impact early in their day!

4) Learn the difference between inconveniences and problems.   Most of the challenges we are dealing with are simply an inconvenience, yet we often respond as if they are big problems.  In my experience the major difference is that with an inconvenience, I could move on.....if viewed as a problem I got stuck.  To some, the phrase is "having perspective."  

I was first sent an article on this while going in for some skin cancer surgery.  I was feeling a bit low and a friend sent me an article called "The Sigmund Wollman Reality Test".  I encourage you to read it.  The article stresses that perspective not only helps us to move forward, but is helpful in our relationships with others

Re-do #4:   When we look at things as inconveniences rather than big problems we move forward, and gain strength through overcoming struggle

While each of these four reflections are basic, they impacted me as a coach.  Growth, or not, in these areas did shape our team culture.  I realized that when it was not about me, our teams improved......but it did begin with me, the head coach must lead.   While I do not want to get caught up in imperatives (I should, must etc).....no winning culture occurs without a vision.  Your vision and culture are your only competitive advantages.  

Parting thought--Creating a winning culture takes a ton of energy.   Energy begins with taking care of yourself -- hydrate; get sleep; drinking less caffeine; recover, and .....enjoy, know, and share what makes you tick

Have fun!

George Kennedy

Head Coach, Johns Hopkins University
1985-2016